Home > Democracy, Europe, Sortition, Turkey > A heavy head after Turkish election night

A heavy head after Turkish election night

Well, I admit it, I can’t stop thinking about the latest episode of Turkish Election Night. That promising new story-line of David vs Goliath, how could anyone resist? And the plot twists! Goliath sneaking out distracting numbers to put his opponent’s aim off. A sharp new personage surging onto the stage as a co-combatant. And then Goliath beating the odds and coming out on top.

That ending seems unlikely to change in a run-off vote on 28 May. Challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who took 45 per cent of Sunday’s vote, will be hard pushed to catch up with the incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who led with 49 per cent and looks sure to pick up much of surprise kingmaker Sinan Oğan’s 5 per cent.

Perhaps a different result might have meant profound shifts in domestic and foreign policies, as the New York Times opined. For the Economist, it was “a chance to restore democratic rule, and a path to economic stability”, with the fate of relations with Russia, the judiciary and the central bank all in the balance. At the very least, it would have been good to see a prisoner of conscience like persecuted businessman Osman Kavala walk free.

Now we’ll probably never know. My head the morning after was weighed down by the realisation that Turkey’s stance on all these real dilemmas was riding not just on a narrow majority but also on just one day’s vote that will not be repeated for another five years. And the question: why would any country, business or organisation that wanted to be flexible and innovative allow its decision-making process fall into an iron trap like this?

Choices have long-term consequences. As Turkish Professor Murat Somer argues, the country has been charging toward an autocratic, untransparent model of centralised decision making since a narrow majority of Turks approved a presidential system in a 2017 referendum. “The current authoritarian constitution and ruling style has not been consolidated yet but if the current government wins … it’ll be hard to get back to democracy. Autocracy could last a long time,” he said.

In short, I felt like I’d been hitting my head against a brick wall and expected a different result. The same old political map emerged: inland Anatolia and the Black Sea coast voted pro-Islamic and conservative (that is, for Mr. Erdoğan); the coast and some the biggest cities voted secular and progressive; and the mainly Kurdish southeast voted for Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu for president and for their mainly Kurdish party for parliament.

But the prevailing injustice remains: one half of Turkey has got to choose what happens next, and for five years national decisions will continue to be made more or less whatever the other half thinks. (Since the opposition is a much more equal coalition committed to re-introduce a parliamentary system, it’s fair to assume that it plans less of a one-person show, but in principle the same applies to them). The many municipalities in opposition hands will struggle to get funds and stay out of legal trouble. Meanwhile the common ground of consensus and good sense are undermined as the system increases Turkish nationalists’ undue influence on the right, as it does Kurdish nationalists on the left.

The incumbent’s victory surprised even the markets and on Monday morning the Turkish lira dropped five per cent against the dollar. The workers who are half-way through rebuilding the roof of my Turkish home from home failed to turn up, knocked out by spending the night watching the results come in and in one case driving half way across Turkey to vote.

Now the whole country of 85 million people faces two more weeks of paralysing drama until the 28 May run-off. Polarisation will proceed apace as President Erdoğan is forced even further to the right to ensure victory, while progressives, left with no prospect of a say in government, will doubtless become more pointed in their opposition.

Voting is obligatory and well-managed in Turkey – with only one or two reports of violence at polling stations – and Sunday’s 88 per cent turnout puts many Western states in the shade. But whichever side wins, it is hard to see how stability, motivation and progress will be well served by a centralised presidential system in which half of the population is angry, frustrated and feels unable to have its voice heard.

This is the same divisive majoritarian logic that gave Turkey its presidential system in 2017 with just 51 per cent of the vote. Similarly, this logic gave Europe the 2016 UK referendum on Brexit (which left 48 per cent of the British population seething and impotent for an indefinite future outside the EU) or the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence (in which 44 per cent of the Scots were left frustrated inside the UK for another generation). There is also the razor-thin margin which will doubtless decide between a Republican and a Democrat candidate in the U.S. in 2024, driving ever-deeper divisions between Americans who would mostly be able to agree on many things.

It’s not just in Turkey that people are gravitating to authoritarian alternatives (as long as autocrat reflects their political preference, of course). Pew Research Centre finds that a median of 51 per cent of people in 27 countries are dissatisfied with their country’s democratic performance, and a median 52 per cent of people in 17 advanced economies think their systems need major change.

Why then should elections continue to be the exemplar of how we choose who runs human affairs? In the conversations I’ve been having in my nearby market town in southern Turkey (described before the elections here), people are definitely split down the middle in their preferences between the candidates on offer. But at the same time, it is clear that most of them want broadly the same things: rule of law, predictability, jobs, schools and municipal efficiency.

In Turkey, polls generally show that people may dislike politicians, but they still trust the country’s institutions (see my pre-election piece in Politico about Turkey’s ‘battle of the centuries’). Experiments in my favourite alternative or complement to elections – sortition-based democracy, that is, groups of randomly selected citizens informing themselves about a topic, deliberating and then deciding in the public interest – are spreading fast in Europe, and from the Philippines to Mexico. Could they work in Turkey too? Perhaps. A recent Harris poll found that 63 per cent of Turkish citizens would be ready to participate in a council to audit their municipality’s work.

A start could be made with a citizens’ assembly on a subject that isn’t one of the big divides of Turkish politics. Possible subjects could be:

What would Turkey’s best policy be to cope with the long-term presence of 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country?

Or: How can this country, criss-crossed as it is by major tectonic fault-lines, revamp its existing and future buildings to deal with the dangers revealed in the February earthquake, when inadequate and poorly enforced building codes resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people?

Or even: What does Turkey really want from its stalled membership negotiations with the European Union?

Such citizens’ assemblies would surely give a heartening example of ordinary people moving forward and finding consensus on difficult policy matters, as such mini-publics have done so well elsewhere. This would certainly lighten up the status quo, in which half the population is left alienated or angry the morning after. And for years of mornings to come.

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